The Importance of Touch in a Socially Distanced World

The mounting tension in the world is affecting our bodies.

“I feel like I did after 9/11,” said my client, Kathy, as she sat down in my office, “it’s grief. I’m grieving for the entire world. I know I’ll work through it, but this is where I am right now.” As we started the session, it became clear that her emotional grief was trapped in her body. Her neck was tighter than ever, sinking towards her ribcage as if compressing her voice box. Her breath was restricted, and her diaphragm was taut, as I guided her towards taking deeper breaths. Kathy’s body seemed to be narrating the twists and turns of an emotional rollercoaster, one it had been riding since mid-March. We are all experiencing a shocking, uncertain world, and whether we are aware of it or not, our bodies are holding onto the trauma of it all.

When I reopened my massage therapy practice on July 1, I was prepared for the worst. I told myself that people were conserving money, staying home, and maintaining 6 feet of distance from each other. A touch-based business seemed impossible given the realities of COVID. As it turns out, however, people were anxious to get on the massage table, and I have been as busy as ever these past few months. Some of these eager clients are folks who live alone, and for whom massage therapy would be one of the only outlets for intentional, healing touch. With research showing that massage and warm physical contact can boost oxytocin and lower stress hormones, we need to recognize the importance of touch in surviving the sterility and chaos of our contactless, socially distanced world.

“I miss people, I miss socializing,” said one of my regular clients, June. There was an emotion in her voice, almost a desperation, that I had never heard before.  June is in her seventies, lives alone with her two cats, and previously spent her pre-COVID time volunteering and engaging in her church and friend community. She is a strong woman with a quick wit and an air of independence and introversion, so it struck me to hear the loneliness in her voice. Without her church community, she wasn’t hugging or communing the way she used to. Her extended family wasn’t meeting in close quarters anymore. My massage work has become her only source of nurturing human touch. As touch has become more rare, I have felt June trust and open up to me more. She has begun to share more details of her personal life, her past, and her friendships. I attribute this greater openness to the influence of touch on creating close bonds and the fleeting presence of touch in this new world. While my work to relieve her arthritic pain and immobility remains a priority, there is an additional goal of providing compassionate skin-to-skin contact, which she is not receiving elsewhere.

Recent developments in the neuroscience of touch have deemed skin to be the “third brain.” The skin has millions of sensory receptors that receive information from the outside world. The receptors send this information via sensory nerves to the cognitive and emotional centers of the human brain. In this way, touch has the potential to change whole body states and emotions. It has been well-documented that skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn baby are linked to healthy brain development and secure attachment. Touch-based therapies like massage therapy have been found to increase levels of the oxytocin, the bonding and trust hormone. For anyone living through the COVID pandemic, healthy, compassionate touch can be a key to maintaining balance, and it is especially important for those who live alone.

When our bodies adapt to change, it creates a stress response. This response usually involves a muscular reaction. We are, on some level, preparing to fight, flee, or freeze in response to the change. I see this every day in my massage practice. My client, Theresa, is a social worker who once saw her patients face to face in a hospital and is now seeing them on Zoom. On the rare occasion that she does meet in-person with patients, she has a socially distanced meeting in full PPE in her office. She enjoys little work camaraderie with her coworkers as they mostly communicate over email now. Her patients who are high-risk depend on her to help them navigate their conditions during the chaos of COVID.  All of this has created muscular stress in her body, and yet her self-care rug has been further pulled out beneath her. She no longer sees her chiropractor due to his lax mask requirement, and she has not been feeling motivated for Zoom yoga after a Zoom workday. So, by the time Theresa comes to me for bodywork, her body is carrying the stress of adapting to change and the repercussions of limited self-care.  It takes twice as many sessions now to relax what we could previously do in one session. Ribs tense, shoulder blades lifted, neck immobile—her body is coping with this stressful new reality as best it can.

Change can be unsettling physically and emotionally. It can bring up grief, anxiety, fear, hopelessness–feelings that we may normally heal through human interaction like a hug from a friend.  In lieu of close human interaction—massage therapy sessions have become some clients’ way of settling their emotional stress. In a study of generalized anxiety and massage therapy, Dr. Mark Rappaport found that massage therapy helped to decrease anxiety, depression, fatigue, and irritability. It also helped to increase quality of life and productivity in participants. When the body’s alarm bells cannot stop igniting the stress response during a period of life transition or loss, hands-on work can help quell those alarm bells and change the body’s hormonal response.

I attribute this greater openness to the of touch on creating close bonds and the fleeting presence of touch in this new world.

Now I am not naïve to the fact that a massage therapy session costs money, and that cost makes the service unattainable for some. While much of the massage therapy research looks at sequenced, formal massage there is evidence that simple, compassionate touch is beneficial for mental and physical health. Research supports that warm partner contact can boost oxytocin levels in men and women and lower blood pressure and norepinephrine levels in women. Whether it’s coming from a friend, a spouse, or a parent, warm, compassionate touch and physical contact can impact our mental health and is more important than ever right now.

A few weeks before I reopened my office in July, I practiced on a few friends, just to make sure I was comfortable with PPE and protocol. It had been almost four months since I had laid hands on a client, and I was a bit nervous. What if I had lost my skill? What if my tactile senses had shut down? All dramatic fears, but I did not want to assume that nothing would change after so much time away. Instead something unexpected happened. A swell of emotions crept into my body, and my eyes welled up with tears. Using my therapeutic touch again brought up a mix of nostalgia and excitement. It was like the power was back on in a room that had been dark for months, and I was finally able to explore. Touch is, after all, one of our traditional five senses, and mine had been compromised for a bit. It felt miraculous.

Last week, a client walked in, seemingly calm, but I could tell something was simmering underneath. “How are you doing?” I asked, “what is your body feeling?” She sighed. “It’s just chaos,” she said. “I feel like I’m holding chaos in my body.” That phrase, I thought, was just so perfectly accurate. Regardless of who you are, we can all agree that the mounting tension in the world is affecting our bodies. Whether its chaos, grief, desperation, or stress, our bodies are holding onto a lot. Touch can help us stay resilient and present in the wake of an unknown future.

*all names have been changed for privacy purposes

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Emily Dunuwila

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